I have two "kids" in my barn at the moment: my own Fender (6) and my student Amy's Bo (7). Both are well-bred, well-started and athletic young horses with no issues (hooray!). They are both easy to look at and have great paces. And none of those things are my favorite thing about them. My favorite is that they both have the most wonderful work ethic. The more you ask, the more they give.
Work ethic is a hard thing to evaluate when you're looking at baby babies. Even as 3- and 4-year-olds under saddle, it's not always so easy to tell. When they fall apart, is it because they're simply out of gas? When you ask for more and they can't, is it honest? There's just not always an easy way to tell.
But at 5, that magic year in warmblood horses where I think their real natures show up (magnified by a big dose of teenage angst), you start to see a glimpse into that horse's future. At 5, Fender did a fair amount of whining, but he never quit moving. Even when he'd kick out at the leg or buck a little in his charming and a little embarrassing way, he never really quit. Bo's answer to everything is forward - sometimes up and forward, sometimes sideways and forward, but never backward.
And now as they're both knocking on the door of upper level work - Bo is showing third level, Fender is doing whatever it is that Fender is doing - the more I ask, the more they give. I pick up a stick for Bo to do some half steps, and the worst thing he does is try to passage. The ears go out to the side, and if he had a brow, I know he'd furrow it. He wants to get the puzzle finished. He wants to know the right answer.
Fender has a game face, where he almost squints a little, like he's trying to force the idea from his brain to his legs. He groans. It's precious. But it's all for good; he, too, wants to get an A.
One look at my successful (and not-so) FEI horses says a lot about work ethic, too. Billy, Ella, they'd trip over themselves to please. Midge and Cleo, while certainly strong, Alpha characters, fight for me, not with me. While Tres may not be the go-iest thing on the planet, he never backs down from a fight. On the other hand, Struppie, the horse I took to the NAYRC, wasn't so invested in whether he got it right or not, and I think that's why we never had the same results, and why he didn't go Grand Prix. And some other horses we haven't owned but that I've had the ride on over the years were really made for mid-level work at their finest, because they just don't have the same drive.
And then there's the really screwball ones, which I've been fortunate enough to avoid - the ones that buck explosively, stand up, or just stand in the middle of the ring while you flail to try and get them to move. Lots of these horses have something medical or emotional wrong with them, but there are some that just don't want to be riding horses. No amount of terrific training can make them into what they don't want to be.
There are so many forces that must combine to make a great horse - athletic potential, health, the right rider. But when the first answer to a new question is "no," it doesn't matter if they're regally bred with the finest legs in the land. There's been more than one ugly duckling at the top who, because "try" was their middle name, became a swan at the top. A teacher in my past told me that triumph was what happens when you combine a lot of try and a lot of umph. And when your ugly ducklings aren't ugly, like Bo and Fender, the future is bright!